Pay those employees, non-exempt and otherwise.

I recently wrote about a case in the Tenth Circuit, Kenney v. Helix TCS, Inc., where the Court of Appeals is asked to decide if the Federal Labor Standards act (FLSA) provides wage and hour protection to employees of cannabis businesses. That case hasn’t seen much movement since I wrote about it, but its decision could have a significant impact on a case recently filed in Federal District Court in Oregon.

Michael Garity has filed a state and FLSA wage and hour claim against his former employer, WRD Investments LLC (“WRD Investments”). According to the complaint, Mr. Garity was hired by WRD Investments to provide expertise and labor in support of WRD Investments’ marijuana grow near Junction City, Oregon.

Mr. Garity alleges he was a “non-exempt” employee for WRD Investments. His status as a non-exempt employee would have required WRD Investments to pay Mr. Garity at least minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime rates for all hours worked over 40 hours per week. In the complaint, Mr. Garity alleges that between March 2016 through May 2017 he may have worked approximately 2500 hours without any compensation. He further alleges that he frequently worked over 40 hours per week without overtime pay.

Mr. Garity’s complaints do not stop there. Mr. Garity also alleges that WRD Investments failed to provide him with itemized statement of pay and failed to establishe regular pay days in violation of Oregon laws. The Complaint also states Mr. Garity incurred expenses on behalf of WRD Investments such as using his personal vehicle to conduct WRD Investment business without reimbursement from WRD Investments.

Mr. Garity’s complaint requests actual damages for unpaid minimum wage and overtime compensation plus an equal amount as liquidated damages and reimbursement for business related expenses, penalty wages under Oregon wage and hour laws, and attorney fees and costs. Mr. Garity’s complaint does not lay out a number, but based on my calculations WRD Investments could be on the hook for around $40,000 related to the FLSA claims alone. Should this matter proceed far into litigation, WRD Investments could also be on the hook for attorney fees which could eventually surpass the $40,000 number.

The Kenney case mentioned at the beginning of this post may have significant impact on Mr. Garity’s claims. Mr. Garity’s case is filed in a Ninth Circuit district court and nothing binds a Ninth Circuit court to follow a decision from the Tenth Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit district court could be persuaded by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision and decide to follow its precedent. Alternatively, it could choose to ignore the precedent and decide to create its own path. Either way, it will be very interesting to see the legal arguments that are made in Mr. Garity’s case regarding whether the FLSA protects marijuana employees.

Regardless, a good lesson can be gleaned from Mr. Garity’s complaint. First, be sure you are properly classifying your employees as exempt or non-exempt. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, ensure that you are properly paying your employees. If you are ever concerned you are in violation of wage and hour laws, its always a good idea to have a cannabis employment law attorney review your payment procedures. It may cost some money up front but will likely save you much, much more in the long run.

oregon cannabis interstate salesOnce again, Oregon is working on becoming a marijuana maverick. The Beaver State is on the verge of introducing a bill that would allow marijuana exports to other states by 2021.

In an attempt to tackle the oversupply crisis that has plagued Oregon the last few years, the Craft Cannabis Alliance, an Oregon-based membership association of cannabis and allied businesses, has spearheaded a campaign aimed at reintroducing the idea of exporting Oregon cannabis, a plan that was first proposed in 2017 by Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene).

The idea was memorialized in Senate Bill 1042, which would have permitted interstate transfers of cannabis products with adjacent legal states that complied with Oregon’s testing, packaging and labeling rules as well as any rules imposed by the receiving state. Although the original proposal died in the House last year, a lot has changed since then.

First, the popularity of marijuana among American adults has been on the rise. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 64 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

Second, Oregon’s supply has far exceeded local demands: the state is currently sitting on approximately 1.4 million pounds of marijuana that state and federal laws prohibit from selling outside state lines. This tremendous oversupply in Oregon has caused prices to crater, putting many licensed growers on precariously thin ice. Indeed, in 2018, the wholesale price of Oregon flower dropped from $3.90 per gram at the beginning of the year to $1.86 as of the end of the summer.

Third, interstate exporting has seen a growing support from lawmakers and local media.

So in theory, this idea should materialize; unfortunately, federal law remains in the way as we discussed last year.

Though the use and sale of recreational cannabis is currently legal in 10 states, the plant remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act (“CSA”). Specifically, Section 801 of the CSA provides that the distribution of controlled substances in “interstate commerce and foreign commerce” justifies federal control of said substances. federal guidance also expressly forbid the “diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states.” Accordingly, federal law would put Oregon and other legal states engaged in such interstate transfers at great risk of federal enforcement actions and would most certainly compromise the cannabis exchange.

However, the passage of this idea into state law could arm the Beaver State with a big advantage. Specifically, the state would be able to start exporting its cannabis products the moment federal cannabis prohibition is lifted. Such strategic advantage would position Oregon as a leading marijuana exporter (assuming it can find some buyers) and would serve as an escape valve for the chronic oversupply issue.

For now, we must sit tight and see how the proposed bill, which has yet to be drafted, will be received by the Oregon legislature. We will keep you updated on this issue.

oregon employee medical marijuanaIt’s 2019 and Oregon employees can still be terminated for off-work marijuana use. That includes not just recreational use, but off-work medical use by registered cardholders in the Oregon Health Authority system– even patients with debilitating medical conditions like cancer or epilepsy. This means that Oregon, which has been on the forefront of decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, is no better than the most conservative jurisdictions when it comes to off-work use. What gives?

Back in 2017, the Oregon Senator Floyd Prozanski introduced Senate Bill 301. The bill would have protected employee off-work marijuana use—meaning employers could not terminate an employee for using marijuana outside of working hours, so long as it did not lead to on-the-job impairment. The bill faced opposition from industry groups related to worksite safety and federal law. Accordingly, the bill was amended to protect only off-work use by medical marijuana card holders, but this was still not enough to secure passage.

Never one to be stopped by a little failure, Senator Prozanski is back at it and has proposed a new bill, Legislative Concept 2152. The proposed bill is short and sweet. The relevant portion simply states:

It is an unlawful employment practice for any employer to require, as a condition of employment, that an employee or prospective employee refrain from using a substance that is lawful to use under the laws of this state during nonworking hours except when the restriction relates to a bona fide occupational qualification or the performance of work while impaired.”

However, it seems Senator Prozanski may not have learned any lessons from the 2017 session. The proposed bill does little to address industry concerns related to federal government contractors. Businesses that contract with or receive grants from the federal government are required to comply with the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act. As long as “marijuana” remains a federally controlled substance, these businesses must ensure their employees are drug-free to continue to contract with or receive grants from the federal government. If the Oregon employer does not comply with the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act, they cannot receive the contract or grant. However, if they terminate an employee for off-work marijuana use they would violate the proposed legislation.

Proponents of the proposed bill have stated the bill would not allow employees to use marijuana if a collective bargaining agreement prohibited it. However, a quick glance at the bill demonstrates that it does not clearly address that issue, and seems to continue to ignore the Drug-Free Workplace Act requirements altogether.

Many other states have managed to pass laws that protect employees’ off-work use of marijuana. A careful review of other state laws demonstrates that they specifically address the federal concerns. For example, Arizona’s statute protecting off-work medical marijuana use provides:

Unless a failure to do so would cause an employer to lose a monetary or licensing related benefit under federal law or regulations, an employer may not discriminate against a person in hiring, termination, or imposing any term or condition of employment…based upon…the person’s status as a card holder.”

Legislative concepts are a “draft of an idea for legislation.”  Perhaps there is still time for Senator Prozanski to draft a robust bill that addresses the concerns of businesses that rely on federal contracts and grants, and perhaps 2019 truly will become the year employee off-work use of marijuana is protected in Oregon. Stay tuned.

oregon cannabis industry

Here we are at the end of 2018, which means it’s time for the third annual “State of the State” post on Oregon cannabis (the 2017 post is here and the 2016 post is here). The year 2018 was truly remarkable in the Oregon industry, and we saw a lot of change, from regulatory evolution to industry consolidation to overall market dynamism. Below is a high-level summary of what we are seeing in the industry as we move into the new year.

Competition is intense.

The marijuana market is saturated with both licensees and product. October is always the peak month for harvest, and the Portland Business Journal, by way of OLCC, reports that producers brought in 2.54 million pounds that month (measured in wet weight). This was a slight increase from 2.48 million harvested pounds in 2017. For the full year, production was running 9% higher than 2017, and wholesale prices fell by more than 50% from mid-2017 to mid-2018. As any store owner will tell you, retail prices have fallen significantly too.

In addition to product saturation in the market, the number of licensees has continued to grow. OLCC issued an additional 300+ producer licenses in 2018, bringing the total number to 1,110. There are also 1,141 additional producers awaiting licensure. With respect to retail, there are now 606 active dispensaries in the state, including 173 of them in the City of Portland alone. Although OLCC officially “paused” its review of all new applications submitted after June 15th, we don’t see the market becoming less competitive anytime soon.

The M&A market is also intense.

There are no readily available statistics on the number of purchases and sales of marijuana businesses statewide. Anecdotally though, the amount of this activity coming through our office is remarkable. In the past 12 months, we have handled more cannabis business mergers and acquisitions than we ever could have predicted. These transactions range from people giving up failed businesses for a song, to leading local brands joining forces, to the seemingly never-ending stream of reverse mergers and acquisitions involving Canadian public companies. Although Oregon is no longer the only state to allow non-resident ownership, we don’t see a slowdown in this type of activity anytime soon. Expect Oregon to remain a buyer’s market in 2019.

The rules are pretty settled…

Oregon’s statutory changes and administrative rules didn’t change radically in 2018– at least compared to the past few years. OLCC continues to work around the edges, as with the recent push to end the alternating proprietor arrangement and to tighten up the definition on banned “added substances” in finished products. Overall, though, much of the legislative and agency efforts were centered on black market eradication and on building out the industrial hemp program. We applaud both of those efforts.

… But people keep stepping in it.

If the leading 2018 activity for our Portland marijuana business lawyers was buying and selling businesses, dealing with administrative violations was a close second. OLCC has stepped up its efforts program-wide in this manner: It begins with application scrutiny and extends through notices of violation against licensed operators. Certain violations are unfortunately common. Those include “financial interest” violations (yes, lenders must be disclosed), unapproved site changes, camera issues and manifest issues. We are seeing the same types of things, over and over, from companies large and small. Although many of these matters can be settled, they require extreme care and attention, and are best avoided through vigilant compliance.

People are suing each other.

We mentioned litigation last year, and this year is no different. Some of these disputes stem from business failure, undocumented transactions or deals gone south. We still come across the odd con job. There are also more exotic matters like RICO lawsuits and nuisance battles between marijuana and hemp farms. As long as the industry continues to evolve at its current rapid pace, we expect to see more litigation than in other commodities markets.

Hemp just keeps getting bigger.

This has been another big practice area for our office. Industrial hemp demand skyrocketed in 2018 with the CBD craze. Many Oregon farms and processors capitalized, with the number of Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) growers rapidly expanding from 233 to 568. As compared to OLCC licensing, acquiring a hemp grower’s or handler’s registration from the ODA is fast and easy, and restrictions on sale are far less cumbersome. Now that hemp is legal nationwide, we only expect this trend to continue into 2019.

oregon cannabis license marijuanaRunning a cannabis business is difficult and many people fail. There are a myriad of reasons why these ventures bottom out, although owners tend to blame federal law issues first of all. It’s true that federal law creates a tough environment for cannabis businesses (banking issues, tax issues, branding issues, etc.), but federal prohibition also kept big money sidelined at first, giving small business a real head start. My personal view, after seeing many spectacular business failures and slow motion crashes over the past several years, is that most are some combination of the following: 1) a challenging legal and regulatory environment, 2) saturated markets, and 3) operator error.

A start-up cannabis business cannot control the first two items listed above, but should be able to navigate them. The third item is a different animal. Margin of error tends to be slim for most new ventures, and self-inflicted wounds are difficult to overcome. This blog post covers the five biggest mistakes we continue to see in early stage Oregon cannabis business, and gives suggestions to avoid them.

  1. Failure to properly estimate license transition timelines

Because the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) “paused” review of applications submitted after June 15, 2018, most new market entrants are buying their way in through asset or stock sales from existing licensees. The OLCC has a small and overtasked team of change-in-ownership investigators who work with both buyers and sellers on these transactions. Recently, agency higher-ups have advised us that these changes can still happen in as quickly as four to six weeks. However, that almost never occurs. Four to six months seems more common.

Even a non-cannabis business sale can be delayed by many things, from diligence issues to lease negotiations to ironing out terms in final agreements. In the Oregon cannabis industry, administrative vetting and disclosure requirements must be added to that list. Delays are almost always on the buyer side, stemming from initial business structuring, filling out OLCC business structure and individual history forms, submitting fingerprints, etc. Buyers should create realistic timelines to avoid hemorrhaging cash during this phase, and should strongly consider working with someone who has navigated the change-in-ownership process before. It’s a singular process and there is definitely some art to it.

  1. Paying lawyers to expedite your OLCC application

This is a bad idea, but many people do it. Whether for new applications (pretty straightforward) or change-in-ownership (harder) many new businesses spend significant money on lawyers to guide them through the application process. Our Portland office philosophy has always been not to blow through client retainers on ministerial work: We want people to succeed so we can work with them for years. For that reason, we have trained licensing paralegals who push these applications through efficiently and expertly. Attorneys only come in for unusual situations. The bottom line here is that new businesses should save their legal budgets for work that cannot be done by non-lawyers.

  1. Starry-eyed forecasting

You are not going to sell your marijuana for $2,000 a pound in Oregon. Forget it. You also do not have a strain of marijuana that you will patent and license one day to big pharma. You are not the only person trying to run down hemp for distillate, and, closer to home, you should not budget a six-figure salary for yourself or anyone else in the early stage. Although the market challenges have been well publicized, too many people believe that an OLCC marijuana license is tantamount to a license to print money. It’s not. All of this means that it is crucial to dial in your research and expectations before starting out – especially if you are taking on investment and the legal risk attached to that.

  1. Employment issues

For whatever reason, employment practices are often subpar with cannabis businesses. There are a couple of important things to note here. The first is that employee actions, even if unauthorized, can lead to license revocation in Oregon. This means you must ensure your employees are well versed in compliance, and you have to watch them. The second thing to note is employment law is complex and seems to change as often as cannabis licensing rules. We have a host of new employer requirements coming online January 1, 2019 in Oregon, for example. Whenever there is a dispute, courts and administrative bodies tend to favor employees, so it’s important to keep your team in order.

  1. Bad (or no) business agreements

You do not need a tall stack of complex documents to start a cannabis business. You do need the basics, though, and those agreements should be solid. If you are renting property, get a tailored industry lease. If you are organizing an LLC, get an operating agreement that covers matters important to your business, such as management, distributions, protocol for when someone jeopardizes the OLCC license, etc. Or, if you have a white label agreement, ensure that all processes and intellectual property ownership are delineated. The list goes on.

Starting a business can be expensive, and people tend to skim on legal. But nearly all of the cannabis litigation matters my firm is currently handling stem from defective contracts, and from people operating informally in that sense. Reasonably tailored contracts should be a part of any new business plan, and they should not break the bank. These contracts will set both guidelines and expectations for the business, and they operate like insurance when things go wrong.

employment law oregon cannabisOwning a cannabis business can present formidable challenges. Adhering to the OLCC rules can be complex in and of itself, but your business must also comply with an array of state and federal employment laws and regulations.

If you are an OLCC licensed cannabis business with employees, Harris Bricken employment lawyer Megan Vaniman will present a free webinar tomorrow, December 12, 2018 at 12pm PST to help you better understand these issues. Throughout the presentation, Megan will discuss how to navigate employment law for cannabis businesses, and provide you with tips and tricks to ensure compliance. Topics Include:

  • What to consider when hiring
  • Oregon’s sick leave requirements
  • Oregon and Portland’s “ban-the-box” ordinance
  • Final pay checks
  • Independent Contractor vs Employee designation

Moderated by Harris Bricken cannabis attorney Vince Sliwoski, Megan will also address audience questions throughout the presentation. Please register by clicking here. For any additional questions regarding the webinar, please contact firm@harrisbricken.com. We hope you can join us!

Oregon psilocybin psychedelic mushrooms

Back in August, I covered the landmark Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug trial approval for psilocybin, the naturally occurring, psychedelic ingredient found in around 200 species of mushrooms. I speculated that if everything goes well, we could see an approved psilocybin drug hit the market sometime in the next 5 to 10 years. I also mentioned that it’s possible that psilocybin could be legalized in certain states before that, including Oregon. Last month that came one step closer to happening, when Oregon Attorney General approved ballot measure language to legalize psilocybin statewide.

Initiative Petition 2020-12 (the “Initiative”) can be found here, and a link to the Official PSI 2020 Campaign Website can be found here. If you just want to see a summary of the Initiative ballot title as it would appear in 2020, though, we’ve got you covered:

Currently, federal/state law prohibits the manufacture, delivery, and possession of psilocybin (hallucinogen from fungus). Initiative amends state law to reduce most criminal penalties for unlawful/unlicensed psilocybin manufacture, delivery, possession to violations or misdemeanors; retains felonies for large weight of psilocybin and/or some convicted felons. Initiative amends state law to require Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to establish Oregon Psilocybin Services Program to allow licensed/regulated production, processing, delivery, possession of psilocybin, and administration of “psilocybin service” (defined) by licensed “facilitator” (defined) to “qualified client” (defined). Grants OHA authority to implement, administer, and enforce program. Establishes fund for program administration and OHA appointed advisory board to advise OHA director. Preempts local laws inconsistent with program except “reasonable regulations” (defined). Other provisions.

That’s a fair bit to digest, but if you’ve been around this stuff for a while you might observe that the Initiative offers a structure similar to Oregon’s early-stage medical marijuana program. That program also: 1) was borne of an initiative back in 1998; 2) was solely administered by OHA (through its predecessor); 3) reduced criminal penalties, and 4) created a doctor-patient-caregiver program similar to the facilitator-client concept on offer for psilocybin. It appears that the Initiative’s chief petitioners are wisely working off the model.

The steep and imminent challenge for the petitioners is the requirement to gather 140,000 signatures over the next 18 months in order to get the Initiative onto the ballot. If that somehow happens, an even steeper challenge will be convincing 51% of everybody to vote “Yes” to legalizing psilocybin. All in all, it feels like a bit much, even for Oregon. Our guess is that the signatures hurdle will sink the initiative, as recently occurred with a similar effort in California.

Still, you never know. Oregon can boast a history of progressive action on controlled substances, dating back to 1973 when it became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis. That action was taken against the strong headwinds of the recently enacted federal Controlled Substances Act. Today, the zeitgeist is quite a bit different.

If you want to get involved in legalizing psilocybin in Oregon, the landing page for volunteers is here. Otherwise, we will keep you posted on any major developments as they arise.

oregon marijuana cannabis clackamas deschutes We always talk about the cannabis industry being dynamic. That’s true from a markets perspective and it’s true from a regulatory point of view. When it comes to regulations in particular, industry observers tend to focus on the big picture developments: e.g., whether marijuana will finally be re- or de-scheduled at the federal level, whether we will get a farm bill legalizing industrial hemp nationwide, or which new states have legalized cannabis. Those broad issues deservedly get a lot of press. However, marijuana business owners are often more concerned about what is going on locally, at the city or county level. In fact, most cannabis business owners get more passionate about proposed changes to local regulations than proposed state- or even federal law developments.

My law firm has worked with regulated cannabis business in Oregon, Washington and California since 2010. I suspect that none of our cannabis business lawyers support extensive local regulation of marijuana (let alone local licensing programs). Because states tend to promulgate extensive regulatory structures, local rules tend to be duplicative and controversial once you get beyond basic land use concepts. That said, cities and counties are often pressed by their citizens to regulate cannabis businesses, and state governments give ample regulatory authority to local jurisdictions– often including the choice to “opt out” of industry participation altogether.

When localities do regulate cannabis, the process is often iterative, meaning rules are adopted and amended over time. Sometimes the changes accrue in response to changes in state law; sometimes they are in response to litigation; sometimes they are needed when current rules are failing; and sometimes the local population just changes its opinion about cannabis businesses altogether (usually, for the better).

We continue to see cities and counties modify their rules in Oregon. Below is a brief encapsulation of what is going on around the state today, based on client projects. This list is probably not exhaustive, so if you have updates on what is going on in your area, we’d love to hear from you.

Clackamas County

Clackamas County is home to 220 cannabis licenses by our count, making it home to over 10% of OLCC licensees and the fourth largest cannabis county statewide. We have been a part of most rulemaking processes on offer at the County, from the original implementation of Measure 91 to the reversal of the ban on cannabis processing. Recently, Clackamas County proposed to modify its rules yet again, by limiting the availability of production on certain lots. The relevant Planning Commission hearing was held last night, and the Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed license limits on January 16. The amendments, if approved, would limit continguous lots of record under the same ownership to one OLCC producer license, or one medical marijuana (OHA) grow site. The change would apply only to lots zoned as Ag/Forest, Exclusive Farm Use, and Timber. Current OLCC producer licenses existing on contiguous lots in these zones would be grandfathered. The proposed revised regulations are here, and an FAQ is here. There is still plenty of time to submit comments.

Josephine County

Anyone familiar with the Oregon marijuana industry knows that Josephine County has had a rough time in its efforts to regulate cannabis. The County has suffered several consecutive legal setbacks, but apparently is pushing forward with a new effort to limit OLCC marijuana activities on “rural residential” zoned properties. The Board of Commissioners most recently held a land use hearing on November 7, with a first reading of the proposed new ordinance. No word yet on next steps, but it appears that the County is going through the proper public notice requirements this time, and fortunately the current ordinance draft includes grandfathering rights for current licensees (“non-conforming use” application options).

Deschutes County

Deschutes County Ordinance 2018-012 took effect on Friday. The new regulations reduced the available County acreage for cannabis by 17%, mostly by prohibiting marijuana production and processing in the multiple use agricultural (MUA) zone. The ordinance contains many other provisions as well, from new setback requirements to noise and odor mitigation rules. Although Ordinance 2018-012 is now in effect, we are including Deschutes County here because an appeal of this ordinance was filed with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals a few weeks back. The appeal means that these regulations are in flux to some extent, and will not be affirmed or rejected for several months.

New Oregon cities 

Last month, we covered the industry-friendly reversals of Ontario, Klamath Falls, Clatskanie and Sumpter, a quartet of cities scattered about the state which initially prohibited cannabis but are now opening their borders to OLCC licensed businesses. It now appears that the cities of Gates and Joseph may have “legalized” as well. For information on Ontario rulemaking, go here. For information on the Klamath Falls process, go here. We do not yet have information on the remaining four cities, but interested parties should reach out to those City Councils to gauge plans for rulemaking in the newly green jurisdictions.

oregon marijuana OLCC report
Pretty good report for licensed Oregon producers.

On Monday, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (“OLCC”) released results of enforcement inspections of recreational marijuana producers, which indicate that the majority of inspected licensees are in compliance with Oregon laws and the OLCC rules.

“Operation Good Harvest” was a saturation compliance effort that focused on Oregon’s fall 2018 legal outdoor cannabis harvest. OLCC inspectors were in the field for the past two months and conducted 354 inspections across the state, with an emphasis on southern Oregon, a hotbed of marijuana production, accounting for more than a third of the recreational marijuana licenses in the state.

The OLCC inspected a total of 354 outdoor producer licensees and found that 259, or 73 percent of them did not have any “deficiencies” nor were they likely to commit potential violations. Of the 95 licensees with deficiencies, 41 have potential violations that could lead to the cancellations of their license, which roughly represents 12 percent of the outdoor producer facilities inspected. A more comprehensive overview of the inspection results is as follows:

Region

Inspections Licensees with Deficiencies Compliance Rate

Possible License Cancellations

Statewide

354

95

73%

41

Bend

11

5

55%

2

Eugene

44

9 44%

5

Medford

167

43 74%

22

Portland Metro

102

33 68%

11

Salem

30

5

83%

1

The inspections reflect our agency’s effort to prevent diversion from Oregon’s legal cannabis market, and we’ll continue compliance activity across all license categories to maintain the well-regulated market that Oregonians expect”, declared Steve Marks, OLCC Executive Director.

The results of Operation Good Harvest demonstrate that the OLCC continues to take steps to corral Oregon’s overproduction of marijuana by taking a tougher stance on rule violations by licensees. (For some background on this administrative policy progression, we have recently written about OLCC’s recent “tightening up”, from application scrutiny through dealing with non-compliance.)

The result of Operation Good Harvest also seems to reinforce the fact that the surplus of marijuana in our state does not generally emanate from cannabis grown and produced by OLCC licensees, despite earlier reports to the contrary. Instead, illegal export tends to stem from unlicensed grows and from poorly regulated, quasi-commercial systems like the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.

As far as the violations actually turned up by OLCC inspections in Operation Good Harvest, the most common deficiencies pertained to issues with cameras and surveillance coverage. Other common violations included:

  • Data in the Cannabis Tracking System (METRC) not matching plants or product found on the licensed premises;
  • Marijuana plants not tagged and entered into METRC;
  • Failure to provide the OLCC with harvest notification information;
  • Making unapproved alterations to the licensed premises; and
  • Using scales not approved by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The agency is currently investigating licensees for alleged violations and will decide how to charge these license holders once its investigations are complete. Any licensees whose license will be revoked will be entitled to challenge the OLCC charges through the State of Oregon’s Administrative Hearings process However, the final decision on any charges will be made by the OLCC Commission.

Operation Good Harvest produced promising results, showing that Oregon continues to be a leader in regulating cannabis, and that this nascent industry is slowly but surely finding its equilibrium.

OLCC oregon violation license
Recommended compliance level for Oregon licensees.

A couple of months ago, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), for the first time, rejected a settlement offer from a licensee who had violated OLCC rules. At the time, we speculated the OLCC was done with settling and moving towards stricter compliance requirements. It seems, along with more stringent review of applications, the OLCC is doing exactly what we predicted and either rejecting settlement agreements or negotiating tougher settlements that result in licensees voluntarily giving up their licenses.

On September 21, the OLCC approved an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) order to temporarily suspend the marijuana license of the Corvallis Cannabis Club. Typically, a licensee is allowed to continue to operate as normal after receiving a charging document from the OLCC pending the outcome of a settlement or hearing. However, the Corvallis Cannabis Club was under investigation from the federal DEA and the OLCC agreed with the ALJ that a temporary suspension was necessary.

That same day, the OLCC also cancelled High Cascade Farms license after determining the licensee had violated 13 OLCC rules including transporting marijuana to an off-site location and intentionally misrepresenting to the OLCC what happened to the plants.

On October 26, 2018, the Oregon Bud Works agreed to surrender its license to the OLCC after committing 10 OLCC rule violations including changing the licensed premises without approval from the OLCC, failing to keep required surveillance video, and misrepresenting data in METRC.

I have spoken with several people at the OLCC recently about these developments. They all have the same message: now more than ever, it’s time to ensure compliance with the rules. The OLCC believes there has been sufficient time since legalization and the rules have rolled out for licensees to understand and abide by the rules. They are no longer willing to consider settlements that allow licensees to keep their licenses when there are multiple rule violations or especially egregious rule violations.

It unlikely that the OLCC will ever go back to reduced penalties for egregious violations or multiple violations. The agency seems less interested in teaching compliance at this point, than culling the herd. So what can you, an OLCC licensee do?

First and foremost, get familiar with the rules. Undoubtedly, the rules are expansive and overwhelming. They also change frequently. However, if you want to preserve your license, one of the most important assets you can have is a compliance person whose job it is to know the rules and ensure that your company complies at all times. On this point, make sure all of your employees are familiar with the rules, as well. The fact that an employee has a marijuana worker permit is not enough– your business is on the hook for any violation they may commit.

Second, when you have questions about whether a step or process is correct, specialized cannabis business attorneys are a great resource to assist. If you can have person dedicated to ensuring compliance and an attorney to help with interpretation when necessary, hopefully your licensed business will avoid a charging document from the OLCC. Those documents are looking more and more dangerous, and contesting them can be quite a process.